Betrayed: Germany’s government quashes EU carbon neutrality

Germany was once seen as the front-runner of the global energy transition, but it is now working against it at home and in Brussels, says L. Michael Buchbaum.

Germany refused to specifically link EU climate action with the 1.5°C objective. (Public Domain)

It’s not your imagination, nor is it fake news. Science shows that it’s starting to get pretty hot in relatively cool Germany, which recorded its warmest year on record in 2018. With average temperatures reaching almost 11 degrees Celsius, last year was the warmest in over 138 years of temperature record keeping. The heat, combined with persistent drought, has dried out rivers and devastated crops.

But all these signs seem lost upon much of Germany’s government, which instead is more intent than ever to slow down the energy transition. Repeated failures such as the Diesel-Gate Scandal, the nation missing its 2020 pledged emissions targets, the continued expansion of lignite mining (despite the recommendations of so-called Coal Commission) have incensed the public. Yet Germany’s Grand Coalition between the SPD and CDU keeps choosing fossil fuel dependency while denying physics, ignoring public sentiment and ensuring the heatwave isn’t going to break anytime soon. As this story goes to press, the Grand Coalition is now paving the way for fracked LNG imports from the US and an overall gas-powered economy.

Just last year, a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reminded the world that emissions will need to drop to zero by 2050 to limit the global temperature increase to less than 1.5°C, which is essentially the promise of the 2014 Paris Accords. Signatories of the Paris Agreement understood that energy systems contribute two-thirds of global emissions. Bringing these down and embracing a pathway towards carbon neutrality is both the heart of the problem and its safest solution. However, despite that renewables are among the best tools against climate change, switching from coal to so-called “natural” fossil gas is becoming the preferred choice of utilities and policymakers.

Gas Means Runaway Emissions

A newly-released report from the International Energy Agency (EIA) found that global energy-related emissions hit an all-time high in 2018 of 33 billion tons of carbon dioxide, the fastest increase since 2013. Though coal-fired power plants were the single largest contributors to the growth in emissions (accounting for 30 percent of the increase according to the IEA), natural fossil gas usage leapt ahead almost 5% worldwide, its fastest jump since 2010.

While burning gas to make electricity releases on average roughly 50% less CO2 compared to coal, fugitive gas escaping into the atmosphere along the production and delivery supply chain may be negating any overall climate benefits from the fuel switch. Essentially methane, fugitive gas is far more potent, so even if only 5% of overall produced fossil gas escapes into the atmosphere, it will end up being almost as bad for global warming as coal.

Nonetheless, most emissions accounting techniques don’t yet factor fugitive methane into overall climate budgets. That’s particularly true when that gas is imported from elsewhere. As Germany enters into long-term agreements with the U.S. to import fracked LNG, can anyone imagine that, the Trump administration cares about gas’s overall fossil footprint? Even before his administration came into office, the EPA was already grossly under-estimating fugitive methane emissions. Since then, rollbacks to previous, relatively lax methane standards have already taken affect. One wonders if any federal agency is actually keeping a tally.

The EIA’s report helped further these accounting inaccuracies, stating that coal-to-gas switching avoided almost 60 million tons of coal demand, helping “to avert 95 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.” Further “without this coal-to-gas switch, the increase in emissions would have been more than 15 percent greater.”

But without hard science available from the biggest fracker worldwide, how can anyone measure exactly how much methane leakage is really going on? Due to lack of global monitoring, lack of media reporting, and a general avoidance of interest on the part of regulators, and apparently European importers, this remains a terrifying known unknown. “There’s also a lot we don’t know—but that hasn’t stopped governments and industry from throwing caution to the wind and fracking as if there’s no tomorrow,” writes Dr. David Suzuki in a new piece. Even if the US and Germany choose to ignore these facts, the results will nevertheless be catastrophic.

Germany Negates the EU’s Carbon Neutrality Plans

Perhaps with this in mind, politicians bound to the Paris Accords are growing more hesitant to embrace its key points. Carbon neutrality is linked specifically to the Paris Agreement’s signature objective of keeping global warming below 1.5°C. Despite this, Germany has come out against efforts backed by France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Sweden and Denmark that would support the European Commission’s and European Parliament’s decision to decarbonize the EU by 2050. “I will without a doubt maintain that the aim of the EU should be to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. There is no way around it,” said Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU Commissioner for climate action and energy.

Recently a leaked EU-planning document reported by EURACTIV (and confirmed by CLEW) revealed that at a two-day Brussels summit, a group of nations led by Germany and including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic “have refused to specifically link EU climate action with the 1.5°C objective. They also oppose any time-bound commitment to the EU’s climate neutrality objective, deleting any reference to 2050 for reaching that goal.”

Germany’s opposition to carbon neutrality was even more surprising given that the nation’s own draft Climate Action Law includes the same goal. Indeed, embedded within a draft released in February are almost exactly the same phrasings as the EU’s carbon neutrality goals.

Despite announcing a renewed focus on the environment in response to the growing Fridays for the Future demonstrations, sadly “Germany’s response to unprecedented protests by young people all over the world is essentially to put the brakes on European climate action,” said Sebastian Mang, EU climate policy adviser at Greenpeace. As the governing parties continue to circumvent the science and ignore the public, no wonder the Greens have become the nation’s third most popular party, gaining nearly as many new members last year as the CDU lost.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

1 Comment

  1. Ivo Carvalho says

    Reading the posts in this blog I conclude that the “Energy transition” in Germany is not serious enough and it is definitely not going in the direction of carbon neutrality.

    If Germany government is serious about reducing greenhouse emissions, its energy politics needs to be pragmatic, science-based and existing low carbon technologies should be adopted.

    Phasing out nuclear energy was clearly a bad decision. This is clear now as Germany is using coal and natural gas plants to bridge from fossil fuels to renewables.

    Germany should look to similar sized economies like France and Sweden and follow these good examples. That means investing in a mix of nuclear energy and renewables. This is a proven solution to the carbon neutrality problem.

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